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Season Preview: Comeback Players of the Year

The SportsXchange

Matt Kemp, Starlin Castro and Grady Sizemore are among the former All-Stars poised to stage strong comebacks in 2014.

Whether recovering from injury, returning from suspension or simply ready to rebound from a down season, The Sports Xchange polled its correspondents to predict the comeback player of the year for all 30 Major League Baseball teams.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: 2B Aaron Hill missed 10 weeks when he sustained a fractured bone on the top of his left hand two weeks into the 2013 season, but after returning, he showed the same two-way efficiency that marked his two-plus seasons with the Diamondbacks. He has 77 doubles and 39 homers in 276 games since joining the team at the 2011 trade deadline. With a return to health, similar production should follow.

COLORADO ROCKIES: RHP Wilton Lopez dealt with the illness and September death of his father last year, his first with the Rockies, and he had trouble making his sinker work at Coors Field. He pitched in a team-leading and career-high 75 games but went 3-4 with a 4.06 ERA, losing his spot in the late innings. His walks per nine innings rose from 1.09 in 2012 with Houston to 2.15 in 2013 and his strikeouts per nine innings fell from 7.33 to 5.73. He threw the ball well this spring, seems far more comfortable now that he is no longer a newcomer to the Rockies and knows what it takes to make his sinker an effective pitch at Coors Field.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS: OF Matt Kemp was the runner-up to Ryan Braun for National League MVP in 2011. Since then, the once-durable outfielder suffered a series of injuries and underwent major surgeries on his shoulder and ankle. The shoulder issues seem to be over, and Kemp looked stronger this spring than he did a year ago. His rehab from a microfracture surgery procedure on his left ankle is not as far along, but a healthy Kemp would be a dynamic addition to the Dodgers' lineup in 2014.

SAN DIEGO PADRES: C Yasmani Grandal hit only .216 in 88 at-bats in 2013 between missing 50 games due to a performance-enhancing-drug suspension and having his season cut short only 28 games after his return due to a torn ACL in his right knee. The switch-hitting 25-year-old hopes to be ready to play by Opening Day. If he is, he becomes the starting catcher. He hit .297 with eight homers and 36 RBIs as a 23-year-old rookie in 2012.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: If CF Angel Pagan plays the entire season, the Giants would benefit. He tore a hamstring tendon last May 25 and missed three months, and the Giants didn't have the depth to respond and finished 10 games below .500 -- a year after Pagan helped ignite the Giants to the World Series title. Pagan had a mild back issue in spring training, but it wasn't likely to keep him from playing on Opening Day.

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

CHICAGO CUBS: SS Starlin Castro was a two-time All-Star and a 200-hit man not too long ago. His batting line fell to .245/.284/.347 last year as the Cubs tried to turn him into a patient hitter instead of letting him do what got him to the big leagues in the first place: hit away. Castro battled a hamstring injury for almost all of spring training, but he seemed mentally happy after the change in managers from Dale Sveum to Rick Renteria. At only 24, Castro has far too much talent to stay down for long.

CINCINNATI REDS: LHP Sean Marshall was limited to 16 appearances last year due to shoulder problems, and he will start the year on the disabled list after having a flare-up in spring training. If he can return to health and form, he would be a huge boost to the bullpen. He averaged 77 appearances per year for the Chicago Cubs from 2010-12, posting a 2.47 ERA in that span.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS: RF Ryan Braun first was hampered by a thumb injury last season, then was suspended for the final 65 games for his involvement in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing-drug scandal. Braun, who switched positions from left field this spring, is still in the prime of his career and figures to re-establish himself as one of the game's best offensive performers. He knows he is going to hear boos on the road, another test of his remarkable focus.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES: RHP Edinson Volquez has nowhere to go but up following a disastrous 2013 in which he led the National League in earned runs allowed (108) while going 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA in 33 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres. The Pirates like Volquez's stuff, including a fastball that sits at 92-94 mph, and they believe he can improve under the tutelage of pitching coach Ray Searage.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: RHP Jason Motte will be back early in the season, 12 months removed from Tommy John surgery. He was throwing hard in the spring and has a dual incentive -- to help his team earn another playoff berth and to aid his potential free agent profile. Motte tied for the National League lead with 42 saves in 2012 before missing all of 2013.

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

ATLANTA BRAVES: 2B Dan Uggla went from a former National League All-Star to being left off the Braves' playoff roster last season. After hitting .179 in 2013, he has nowhere to go but up, and he looked much better at the plate this spring. "When he came in here (to spring training), you could see the difference," hitting coach Greg Walker said. "Everything was flowing. He looked like Dan Uggla again."

MIAMI MARLINS: Last year, Casey McGehee belted 27 home runs and had 90 RBIs in Japan. The Marlins signed him in December to a $1.1 million in hopes he would add much-needed power to one of the worst offensive lineups in baseball. Miami would be thrilled to get at least 15 homers from McGehee, 31. Through March 25, he was batting .245 with a homer and four RBIs this spring, but his swing impressed several scouts.

NEW YORK METS: 1B Ike Davis spent most of last season mired in a massive slump, prompting the Mets to demote him to Triple-A Las Vegas midway through the summer. Just when he felt he was hitting his stride, Davis strained his oblique and missed the final month of his season. Now he is back with something to prove, after the Mets spent most of the winter unsuccessfully trying to trade him.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: 1B Ryan Howard makes this list for the third straight year. The Phils are counting on Howard returning to his 30-homer, 110-RBI form. The question is, after a series of knee and Achilles injuries, can Howard still deliver power driving off his back leg? This may be the last real chance for the Phils -- who spent $125 million on a five-year deal that kicked in during the 2012 season -- to find out.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS: 1B Adam LaRoche would be the first to admit that 2013 was a disappointing season. His .237 batting average was the lowest in his major league career when playing 50 or more games in a season. LaRoche underwent offseason surgery to remove loose bodies from his left elbow. Batting lower in the lineup might help him make better contact instead of having to worry about run-scoring opportunities every at-bat.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

HOUSTON ASTROS: RHP Jesse Crain was an All-Star last year while going 2-3 with a 0.74 ERA with the Chicago White Sox, but he did not pitch after June 29 because of a right shoulder-biceps problem. The Astros signed him in the offseason in hopes of having him ready by May. If he recovers, he could be a huge asset to the bullpen.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS: LF Josh Hamilton was not hurt for any long period of time last season, but a glance at his numbers would lead one to assume he was ailing. After hitting 43 homers and driving in 128 runs in 2012, he managed just 21 long balls and 79 RBIs last year. The 28 pounds of muscle he added to his frame indicate he is planning on hitting more for more power in 2014.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS: RF Josh Reddick was bothered by a right wrist injury all last season and required surgery in the offseason. His homer totals tumbled from 32 in 2012 to 12 last season. Reddick hit well during the spring, and he showed a much greater ability to cover the plate. After Reddick batted .226 in 2013, the A's expect that he will be able to contribute much more offensively in 2014.

SEATTLE MARINERS: LF Dustin Ackley was supposed to be the Mariners' second baseman of the future, but his three-year struggle at the plate resulted in a demotion to Triple-A last season and a subsequent position switch. Ackley since re-invented himself, and he used a spring to that saw him hit .410 through March 25 to emerge as the leading candidate for the starting job in left field.

TEXAS RANGERS: After saving 160 games for Kansas City from 2007-11, RHP Joakim Soria will return to the closer's role with Texas in 2014. He impressed the Rangers with his velocity this spring after missing the 2012 season while recovering from Tommy John reconstructive surgery, then making 26 relief appearances in the second half of last season for Texas.

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

CHICAGO WHITE SOX: LHP John Danks was 4-14 with a 4.75 ERA last season, still hampered with 2012 shoulder surgery. The hope was he would look like the old Danks this spring, and he did, even getting some of his velocity back. There are no restrictions on Danks this season, and the hope is he can once again be a 200-inning work horse.

CLEVELAND INDIANS: RHP John Axford pitched so poorly for the Milwaukee Brewers last year that not only did he lose his job as closer but he was eventually traded to St. Louis. With the Cardinals he learned that he may have been tipping his pitches. After correcting that, the results were dramatic. He had a 4.45 ERA with Milwaukee and a 1.74 ERA with St. Louis. Axford at his best was an effective closer, saving 81 games for the Brewers in 2011-12. The Indians, in need of a closer, signed Axford as a free agent, and he had a 1.29 ERA in his first seven spring training games, raising hopes that he could return in 2014 to being the pitcher he was in his prime with Milwaukee.

DETROIT TIGERS: LHP Phil Coke was so far off last season (0-5, 5.40 ERA, 21 walks in 38 1/3 innings) that Detroit made the desperation move of optioning him to the minors in August with the hope he could relearn how to throw quality strikes. Coke was roughed up early this spring but in six straight outings entering the weekend had not allowed a run with only three hits and seven strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as he was throwing a tighter, sharper curveball.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS: Mike Moustakas has yet to live up to the billing to be the second overall pick in 2007. After a .233 batting average with 12 home runs and 42 RBIs last year, Moustakas went to Venezuela to play winter ball, where hitting coach Pedro Grifol was his manager. This could be the breakout season for Moustakas.

MINNESOTA TWINS: LF/DH Josh Willingham came to the Twins in 2012 as a prized free agent and played like one, collecting 35 home runs and 110 RBIs. In 2013, those numbers dropped to 14 and 48, respectively. He played with a knee injury and then finally had arthroscopic surgery on it late in the season, so Willingham is looking for a bounce back year in 2014. Unfortunately, spring training has not yet provided the return to form that he is seeking: 2-for-38 (.049) with no home runs. Willingham needs to embrace the role of DH he will often have and regain his power stroke. Look for him to heat up as the regular season gets under way.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

BALTIMORE ORIOLES: RF Nick Markakis battled injuries in each of the past two years and is in the last guaranteed season of a multiyear contract. He is still valuable defensively, but his productivity is declining. Healthy for an offseason for the first time in years, Markakis was able to add some strength, and it showed as he drove the ball well in spring training. It has to translate to the regular season, though, or the Orioles will be declining their $17.5 million option for 2015.

BOSTON RED SOX: CF Grady Sizemore is attempting a comeback after sitting out the past two seasons while recovering from several surgeries, including microfracture procedures on both knees. The Red Sox signed Sizemore to a one-year contract, and in the final days of a promising spring training, he was the front-runner to claim the center field job over rookie Jackie Bradley Jr.

NEW YORK YANKEES: RHP Michael Pineda was the lynchpin of the blockbuster trade that sent then-top catching prospect Jesus Montero to Seattle in 2012. Pineda, who missed the past two years due to shoulder surgery, finally will throw his first pitch as a Yankee after making the rotation as their No. 5 starter with a 1.20 ERA through 15 spring innings.

TAMPA BAY RAYS: RHP Juan Carlos Oviedo is hoping to complete a comeback two years in the making, not having pitched in the majors since September 2011. He was sidelined first by identity fraud issues, and then he blew out his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. He won't be ready for the start of the season after reporting to spring training a month late due to visa issues, but he looked good in camp and is expected to play a key role in the bullpen during the season.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS: LF Melky Cabrera struggled last season, particularly in the field, where he progressively became worse. It turned out that his leg problems were the result of a benign tumor in his spine. Surgery took care of the problem, and he had a strong spring training hitting and fielding. He may not achieve the numbers of two years ago that he had with the San Francisco Giants, but he appears ready for a good season at the plate, and he also will be able to fill in for CF Colby Rasmus if needed. That was not an option last year.
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